Wednesday 28 November 2018

The March of Intellect

It is the current year, and the current year seems embroiled in a heavy debate over issues of freedom of speech and access to information. One of the great selling points of the Internet in the 1990's was that it would finally democratize speech and information, allowing the common person to produce and access content unmediated by corporate media. Then it happened, and the powers that be hated it. 

Gatekeeping provides an illusion of consensus and easy manipulation of the hoi polloi. The rise of comment sections and social media proved how illusory this control was, reaching its apotheosis with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Not only bypassing the corporate media mainstream, the freedom of social media allowed him to attack it directly and ride it all the way to the White House. Now, deplatforming and Silicon Valley unpersoning are among the attempts to get the genie back in the bottle, under the pretense of public "safety." Freedom is risky, and unpopular with those who prefer controlling opinion to engaging in healthy argument in the marketplace of ideas. Whether the odd collusion of leftist authoritarians and corporate media can assert control is for the future to decide, but the historical record doesn't look good.  

None of this is new. The Industrial Revolution brought, of course, many huge changes to the fabric of European and global societies. Not the least of these was a newfound premium on the natural and applied sciences, education, and the increasingly widespread and efficiently affordable production of educational literature. Learning was no longer the privilege of the wealthy upper classes. Now the burgeoning middle class and even the lower classes were becoming wealthier on average, better educated, more literate, and looking forward to advances in technology that would make their own lives easier. Dear God, what hath we wrought?

William Heath satirized this debate at the turn of the 19th century in his series titled The March of Intellect. Born in 1794, Heath was a popular war and military portrait artist who eventually turned to satirical cartoons. The March of Intellect, drafted over 1825 to 1829, provide a vision of futurism from the age of Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe, and the social concerns surrounding it. What would these changes mean for class conscious England? For warfare? For the Church? For, gasp, politics?

The following is a sample of Heath's March of Intellect series. Click on the image for larger versions. 

Robert Seymour joined the fray with his own satirical cartoons, though his is a much cruder (and less jam-packed) apocalyptic vision of new ways sweeping away the past. 

The satirical figure of Charles Golightly was a part of this critique as well, as he took his "Flight of Intellect" aboard his steam-powered rocket.

Sunday 18 November 2018

Happy 90th Birthday Mickey! The Early Years of the World's Most Famous Mouse

He is one of the most instantly recognizable characters in the world, if not the most recognizable. Today, on his 90th birthday, November 18, 2018, he is largely seen as an innocuous, even banal, corporate icon whose famous visage adorns theme parks and consumer goods the world over. But there was a time when he was just an up-and-coming young Hollywood hopeful. His rise to fame is, in fact, a microcosm of Hollywood's own ascendancy. I'm talking, of course, about Mickey Mouse.

I've long been a fan of vintage Mickey Mouse and his milieu. The turnaround point from seeing him as merely a banal corporate icon to becoming a genuine fan was the first time I saw the very first episode of the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series. Originally airing in 1954, the first half of the episode was devoted to setting up Disneyland as a mixed multi-media franchise. Walt, assuming a new role as weekly host and corporate icon himself, showed off the plans for his concept of a new kind of amusement park of multiple "lands" and attractions themed to different films, places in the world, and periods of American history (including the future). He introduced places like "Frontierland" and "Tomorrowland" as conceptual, imaginative spaces to be fleshed out and reinforced throughout the series, in episodes like the Davy Crockett trilogy and Man in Space. The second half of the episode was devoted to the story of Mickey Mouse. It is from this segment that Walt first uttered the famous quote "it all started with a mouse." What endeared me to Mickey was Walt's treatment of him as a genuine personality: a diminutive actor he first met when he was a shoeless farm mouse, but with whom he found success and made it big in Hollywood. It also helped that I'm a fan in general of silent and early sound films, of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and of early animation. To consider the era of Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin but not include Mickey Mouse (who began essentially as an amalgam of the two) is to leave a very important piece out.

The official origin story of Mickey is that Walt Disney was on the train back from New York to Los Angeles after he was informed that he was losing the rights to his character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and most of his studio along with. Then a flash of inspiration came, which shaped itself into Mortimer Mouse. On the recommendation of his wife Lillian, Mortimer was changed to Mickey, and the rest is history. Of course, the real story is somewhat more complicated.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Red Dead Redemption's Weird Western World

The original Red Dead Redemption, released in 2010 by Rockstar Games for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, is considered by many to be a high-water mark in video gaming. Following the "open world" format of Rockstar's infamous Grand Theft Auto series, the mean streets of major modern metropoli were replaced with the Wild West of Italian cinema. Furthermore, the chain of events was given the compelling story of John Marston, a former outlaw who is forced to hunt down his old gang members across Mexico and the fictional State of New Austin after the government takes his family hostage. The game became a perfect example of the growing propensity for video games to transcend film as the art form of the 21st century. Beautifully rendered environments coupled with engaging storytelling and characters that literally involve the player for hours upon hours of entertainment. 

Red Dead Redemption release trailer.

Advances in technology have meant that no video game is truly complete. Indeed, the "day one update" phenomena has shown that most games aren't even fully debugged and ready to run when they are sold. But where there is extra money to make, downloadable content (DLC) is soon to follow. Picking up before Red Dead Redemption's epilogue, the Undead Nightmare DLC (2010) throws a supernatural curve into Marston's settled life. Just when he thought his family was safe, both his wife and son succumb to a zombie plague breaking out across the frontier. Naturally, it is up to the former outlaw to solve a mystery going back to ancient Aztec worship of the Sun. 

Along the way, Marston encounters even more strangeness. As the world is ripped asunder by a zombie apocalypse, the Four Horsemen's steeds roam the Earth. Marston has the option of taming War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, each with their own unique effects on the brain-eating hordes. Somewhere out there in the wilds is also a unicorn that trails a rainbow behind it as you ride. Joining him are jackalope and chupacabra, and a pathos-inspiring episode with Sasquatch. A new mythology for the zombies does not exactly utilize the creature's largely forgotten origins in Voodoo shamanism, but does draw the modern metaphor of cosmic nihilism and urban distress further back in that direction.  

Undead Nightmare trailer.

Undead Nightmare was criticized from some quarters upon its release, as a number of fans of the original game felt that it undermined Red Dead Redemption's realism to jump on the zombie bandwagon. On the one hand, this realism is overstated: the West was not nearly as wild and bloodthirsty as cinema has made it out to be. Red Dead is an interactive Western movie, pulling tropes and archetypes from Hollywood's gunslingers. A truly realistic Western game would involve an unrelenting tedium of plowing land, driving cattle, and months-long bounty hunts. Violent and gritty does not equate to realistic, and it's surprising to learn that anyone has thought that way since the 1990's. Rockstar already sacrificed realism for an entertaining product.

Apparently those critics were a minor voice, because the more recently released prequel Red Dead Redemption II (2018) for Xbox One and Playstation 4 goes much further in integrating elements of the Weird Western into their otherwise more realistic game. In this installment set in 1899, 13 years before Red Dead Redemption, you play Arthur Morgan, the enforcer of John Martson's old gang. After a robbery gone wrong, the gang is on the lam and trekking across the American landscape to avoid Pinkertons and bounty hunters. We see the gang both at the height of its power and through its fall into madness, despair, and death. 

Red Dead Redemption II release trailer.

The game pushes beyond the tropes of the Spaghetti Western to be a much more realistic take on true Western life. Opportunities for fastpaced, bloodthirsty gunplay are further between and resource management becomes a much more significant part of the game. You have to watch out for the well-being of the camp, your horse, and your character, meaning there is more hunting, crafting, bathing, feeding, and brushing going on. The world of Red Dead Redemption II is much more fully and beautifully realized as well. Its sprawling map is a microcosom of the United States, with regions identifiable to actual parts of the country. The city of Saint Denis is a stand-in for New Orleans, surrounded by bayous and neighbouring the red earth of the post-Civil War American South. North is "Roanoke", replicating the Appalachians and Hudson Valley. To the West are ranges of mountains reflecting the Sierra Nevadas and Canadian Rocky Mountains. Tucked in the midst of the mountains is a small tribute to the geyser basins of Yellowstone. In the middle of the map is the eerily accurate "Heartlands" that look exactly like what one would see driving through the grasslands and badlands of the prairies. New Austin returns as the equivalent of Texas.

Throughout this immense world are a plethora of sights and strangers that get weirder and weirder as the game progresses. The original game had its share of odd characters, eccentrics mostly. The only clearly supernatural figure in Red Dead Redemption was the mysterious Stranger, an unkillable, top-hatted gentleman who appears to know everything about John Marston's past... and future. It was a statement by him that provided the seed for Red Dead Redemption II's precipitating incident. Yet he is poorly defined and there is much speculation as to whether he is God, or Satan, or something else entirely. Much like the stranger in the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter (1973), there are hints as to who this Stranger could be, but overall he is an encounter with the Unknown beyond human ken.

Compilation of scenes with the Stranger.

By contrast,  Red Dead Redemption II goes balls to the wall nuts at times. Extraterrestrial visitors appear at least three times in the sky, first above the ruined shack of a Heaven's Gate-style suicide cult. A ghost in the swamps outside Saint Denis eternally relives her tragic tale of lost love and suicide. Speaking of Saint Denis, what would a proxy of New Orleans be without a vampire? Sasquatch bones can be sighted in a mountain cave, a horrific Moreauesque experiment can be found in a deserted house, high in the hills is a witch's hovel with a cauldron brewing, and human sacrifices by pagan cults dot the landscape, as do ancient fossils, Viking burials, pirate wrecks, and crashed flying machines. A side mission has you searching for mysterious rock carvings of Zeppelins and atomic bomb explosions for a man who looks and talks like he is from the 1920's. Another mission has you performing tasks for a Tesla-like genius, culminating in the discovery of an automaton that looks like a cross between Boilerplate and Bender. 

The following videos by LegacyKillaHD showcase some the various Easter eggs and where to find them, though (more) spoilers ahead for those waiting to find them for themselves...